How much are we supposed to follow our conscience in making moral decisions? In a 2013 interview, Pope Francis said that “there is sin, even for those who have no faith, when conscience is not followed. Listening to and obeying conscience means deciding in the face of what is understood to be good or evil.”
This led to no small amount of confusion, likely because many of us grew up hearing about conscience as a sort of “get-out-of-sin-free” card. If we could justify our action (however objectively morally evil it might be) as “following our conscience,” we couldn’t be punished.
So is Pope Francis right? Yes... but not in the way many people may think.
Sometimes orthodox Catholics squirm when they hear “conscience” being bandied about. Too often it’s invoked to claim that we can hold (and teach) error without any consequences.
Take, for example, the case of the once-prominent Irish priest Tony Flannery, CSsR, founder of the Association of Catholic Priests. Fr. Flannery ran afoul of the Church by denying core elements of Catholic teaching—including not only the usual moral issues but the doctrine of the Trinity and even his own status as a priest, by claiming that the priesthood wasn’t instituted by Christ. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Church ordered him either to change his views or stop presenting himself publicly as a Catholic priest.
A religion blogger for the Huffington Post was scandalized by this, and asked rhetorically, “How contradictory can the Church be? On one hand, the Church teaches people, and priests, to follow their conscience. When, on the other hand, they do, they are threatened.” Fittingly, Fr. Flannery’s autobiography is called A Question of Conscience.
Did that blogger have a point? Is it hypocrisy for the Church to preach respect for conscience while at the same time insisting that its priests promote only Catholic teaching?
One of the major problems in this whole conversation about conscience is that people misunderstand the term, and hardly anyone really bothers to define it.
Let’s start with what conscience isn’t. Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver puts the matter well: “Catholics today… have come to understand conscience as listening to their own voice, rather than listening to the voice of God as he has revealed himself in Scripture and in Tradition.” So conscience is not reducible simply to following your “inner voice.”
St. Thomas Aquinas defines conscience as “nothing else than the application of knowledge to some action,” and explores the ways that conscience
- witnesses (when we “recognize that we have done or not done something”),
- incites or binds (when “we judge that something should be done or not done”), and
- excuses, accuses, and/or torments us (when “we judge that something done is well done or ill done”).
In the immortal words of Boston, this means that conscience is “more than a feeling.” Instead, it’s more like, “Based on what you know, what’s the right or wrong course of action in this context?”
This is an important distinction. If you have been committing a habitual sin for years, you may feel totally comfortable with it. Even though it contradicts the law of God written in your heart, you may have learned a way to justify it in your mind, or just out of sheer repetition your conscience may no longer feel pricked when you do it. But once you come to learn that the Church teaches it’s immoral, and that this teaching is guided by the Holy Spirit, you’ve got more knowledge to apply to the act.
This is why the Church speaks of the need to “form” our conscience (see the Catechism 1783-1785). The more good and true knowledge our conscience has, the more it’s able to guide our feelings and keep them honest, the better it works.
So, the principle “follow your conscience” doesn’t mean that what we feel inside determines what’s “right” for us. But if you understand what conscience does mean, you can see why Pope Francis is correct: we should always follow our conscience. Broadly speaking, there are two reasons why:
- We always make moral judgments with the lights available to us. If you grab your roommate’s $20 bill from the kitchen counter, innocently and reasonably believing it’s yours, you’re not guilty of theft.
- It’s always immoral to try to do something evil. To do something “against conscience” means to do something that you believe is morally wrong. And that is always wrong. If you’re trying to steal from your roommate, you’re sinning, even if the $20 bill you swiped turns out to have been yours in the first place. A priest I know gives the example of people who decide to skip Mass on Ash Wednesday, (falsely) believing it to be a holy day of obligation. There’s no actual obligation to go on Ash Wednesday, but if you thought there was and intentionally skipped, that’s a sin. As Pope Francis points out, even an atheist knows it’s wrong to intend to do something wicked, whether or not the thing in question actually is wicked.
But notice again how important it is to properly feed your conscience. If I purposely avoid finding out whether the money on the counter is mine or my roommate’s, it’s not morally okay for me to take it and assume it’s mine. I’m culpable there for my intentional lack of knowledge. (In law, the standard is information that you “knew or should have known.”) Likewise, a willful ignorance about Church moral or doctrinal teaching, or a refusal to consider the credibility or reasonableness of those teachings because we don’t want to have to heed them, does not justify our claim to following our conscience.
In the case of Fr. Flannery, the Church can’t (and didn’t) make him lie and claim to believe Catholic teachings when he honestly doesn’t—that would be contrary to conscience. But the Church can (and should) tell him that he can’t present himself as a Catholic priest while denying Catholic teachings.
The Church also can (and does) exhort all of us never to cease forming our conscience more correctly in submission to the truths of revelation and reason of which it is the divinely guided teacher. Then we can be sure that the inner voice of conscience is also the voice of God.